MENLO PARK, United States — Since 2003, when Web 2.0 first hit the mainstream, we’ve seen an explosion of user-generated content (UGC). Since then, fashion innovators have harnessed the growth of UGC to build experiences like Polyvore, where consumers can mix and match their favourite fashion items for others to see and shop.
But as more and more consumers become increasingly active on the social web, the volume of content being created is starting to overwhelm our ability to organise and make sense of it. Amongst the thousands of sets on Polyvore, for example, how can a fashion consumer easily find the sets that are most relevant to her personal style?
But if the explosion of content associated with Web 2.0 is the primary cause of this problem, it also contains the seeds of a solution that will usher in the next phase of the internet and create an exciting opportunity for fashion retailers. In a world where people constantly share personal information, it’s becoming increasingly possible for retailers to analyse this information to better understand the specific context of the individual — her interests, personal style and other parameters — and deliver content and products that are personalised to her needs and desires. Simply put, “Web 3.0” will enable personalised experiences built on the data created by Web 2.0.
BoF spoke with Sramana Mitra, a Silicon Valley strategy consultant, author and entrepreneur — among other projects, Ms. Mitra ran Uuma, a VC-backed personalised fashion startup which received an acquisition offer from Ralph Lauren before the company was caught in the first dotcom crash — to find out more.
BoF: What is Web 3.0 and what does it mean for fashion brands?
SM: I define Web 3.0 as a verticalised, personalised user experience. The web is still utterly fragmented. You have to go to different places to find information about the same context. I have long had the vision of a personalised Saks Fifth Avenue. I want my store — my personal store — that carries merchandise that applies to me; that suits my hair colour, eye colour, skin tone, body shape and personal style. I want it to stock my favourite designers and more like those. And I want to see articles and community discussions that are specific to my interests.
I start from the notion of context and propose that all the contextual elements are made available within the same site or web service. That includes content, community, commerce, vertical search and personalisation.
BoF: Do you think Google’s Boutiques.com effectively leverages Web 3.0? Is anyone in fashion doing this well?
SM: No, Boutiques.com is not set up to do what I am talking about. You need an expert system powering the backend engine, not just “I like this” and “I don’t like this” type of input from consumers. Frankly, I haven’t seen any site that is really doing a good Web 3.0 implementation in fashion.
BoF: Offline, the best personal shoppers have up to the minute knowledge of fashion and can offer intelligent recommendations based on complex inputs like your personal taste or a specific event you might be shopping for. How exactly might a Web 3.0 service tackle a problem like this?
SM: The entire expert system needs to have a data structure against which the merchandise gets categorized and a rules engine that does the matchmaking based on that characterization. In other words, all the parameters — user, mood, size, event, location, time — need to be clustered, categorised and tied to a rules engine that is the personal shopper.
BoF: But in a trend-based industry like fashion, the rules are always changing!
SM: Every season, the merchandise will need to be entered into the inventory database according to the categorisation. Am I talking too much computer science? This is a complex system to build and to my knowledge, it hasn’t been built yet. At Uuma, this is what we had started to build. This was the central vision driving Uuma’s personalised store and personal shopper service.
BoF: With the coming of personal shopping agents, will Web 3.0 fundamentally democratise the delivery of personalised services that were once considered a luxury? What opportunities are there for luxury brands to differentiate their 3.0 offerings?
SM: There are degrees of personalised experiences. A basic level of personalisation can be achieved by mass brands using technology, especially intelligent agents. But luxury brands could layer in additional levels of personalization, including human personal shoppers who use technology to track your closet and your preferences and then offer additional judgment to augment the user experience and put together custom collections. My point is, the entire user experience can be massively enhanced to reach degrees of customization and personalization that we haven’t seen yet.
Finally, if you mine the data collecting in these online stores and pass some of that back to the designers, they can create custom collections based on specific types and styles of customers and be able to sell them effectively, knowing exactly what retail interfaces the customers are hanging out at. These are incredibly exciting possibilities for the business of fashion to become more personalised on the one hand — and also more scientific on the other. The fashion industry could become more financially successful by utilising personal data: analysing it and designing and merchandising accordingly.
Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion